July 31, 2014

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Browns: Jordan Norwood glad to be back in picture, really just wants chance to contribute

BEREA — Joshua Cribbs was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and an outstanding special teams player throughout his eight-year stay with the Browns.

Cleveland CEO Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi, however, decided he wasn’t valuable enough to re-sign during the offseason.

With Cribbs now a member of the Oakland Raiders, the Browns know it won’t be easy to replace their former jack of all trades.

“It’s going to take a great effort because Josh was — and still is — a great punt returner, kick returner, all-around special teams guy,” wide receiver Jordan Norwood said Monday at training camp.

“One guy won’t even replace him because you can’t. We’ll have to try and fill his role in different ways with different guys.”

Norwood and fellow wide receiver Travis Benjamin are the leading candidates to return punts and kickoffs for Cleveland this season.

Both have worked extensively in those spots during the first five camp practices, but wide receivers Davone Bess, Josh Cooper and Mike Edwards are also in the mix.

Norwood, though, has clearly piqued the interest of new Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.

The four-year veteran grabbed two more touchdowns and made two other nifty catches Monday, continuing his terrific offseason.

“Jordan has had a good camp so far and has made plays,” Chudzinski said. “He’s been able to run good routes and able to separate, and really caught the ball well. He’s healthy.”

Yes, Norwood is, which hasn’t been the case for much of his NFL career. The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder has seen every golden opportunity he’s been presented with tarnish because of injuries.

Norwood’s most recent heartbreak occurred Oct. 7 at the New York Giants, when he made a career- and game-high nine receptions for 81 yards — before suffering a severely sprained left foot that ended his season.

“It has been frustrating because you want to stay healthy, but it’s really out of your control,” said Norwood, who has 36 catches for 405 yards in 17 games since signing with Cleveland in 2010.

“I try and take care of my body the best I can, which is why I worked on strength and conditioning a lot this summer, but there is only so much you can do. A lot of it has to do with luck.”

Luck also will play a large role in Norwood’s short-term future.

Greg Little, Josh Gordon, Bess and second-year pro Benjamin are guaranteed to make the Browns roster, while David Nelson is a solid bet if healthy.

Typically, that would leave no more than one spot available for Norwood, Cooper, Edwards, Tori Gurley, Naaman Roosevelt, Cordell Roberson and Dominique Croom to fight for, but Gordon is facing a two-game NFL suspension, putting one more roster position in play.

“Special teams are something that I enjoy doing, and I also know it’s going to be very important when the coaches look at who they’re going to keep,” Norwood said. “I’m focused on doing the right things on returns, catching the football, and being a part of this team.”

The Penn State product filled in for an injured Cribbs two years ago at punt returner, collecting 35 yards on four runbacks. All of Norwood’s kickoff return opportunities with the Browns and Eagles have occurred in the preseason.

Benjamin, who was a return specialist at The University of Miami, ran back a punt 93 yards for a touchdown last season against the Chiefs. Generously listed at 5-10 and 175, he averaged 49.7 yards on three punt returns and 25.3 yards on three kickoff returns as a rookie.

It appeared Benjamin was being groomed for Cribbs’ special teams spot last fall, but Cleveland’s front office overhaul and coaching change has given Norwood a fighting chance at the job.

“I love returning punts and kickoffs,” he said. “If there is an opportunity for me back there, I want to take advantage of it. All I’ve ever asked for in my football career is a chance.”

Contract Brian Dulik at brisports@hotmail.com.